Individual Literacy Profile
EDUC 2090: Literacy across the Curriculum
Instructor: Dr. Eileen Landay
The purpose of this research is to look at the literacy skills of a high-school student who is not a native English speaker. I hope my findings will be helpful in my personal academic and professional development, since equality in education is a major part of my teaching philosophy, and I hope they may help other teachers to effectively differentiate their methodology.
In their publication Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas, Heller and Greenleaf provide the following statistics:
"[R]oughly 8 million American students in grades 4-12…read far below grade level. By and large, those students have basic literacy skills—that is, most can decode and comprehend simple texts (Kamil, 2003)—but they tend to struggle with the more challenging materials typically assigned in middle and high school, such as textbooks and other informational documents, and have trouble writing clear, effective materials of their own." (Heller 4)
I experienced the reality of this situation when my team-mate, Sylvia Boateng, and I co-taught a history class of high-school students at Brown Summer High School from July 5 to July 27, 2011. The writing, reading, speaking, and listening literacy assessments we did in class can be found in Whole-Class Literacy Profile: History 5B we co-authored. The purpose of this paper is to examine how the use of less traditional reading texts may complete the literacy profile of a specific student.
The student who helped me in my research is a 14-year old senior girl, whom I shall call Eloisa. Eloisa came from the Dominican Republic 6 months ago with her family. After several conversations with her, I found out that Eloisa's father was a prominent lawyer in the Dominican Republic, and that her mother is currently working at an office but wants to stay at home as soon as her husband manages to find a job that will fit his skills and expertise.
In her personal/reading survey, Eloisa described herself as an avid reader. In response to the question, "What are your interests?" she wrote "read," and when asked to mark sorts of reading she did on a regular basis, she responded by marking all types of reading on the list, including chat rooms, IM, text messages, novels, newspapers, textbooks, and auto/biographies, but for three. Eloisa said she does not like reading Internet pages, manuals, and essays. She said that she found reading essays to be the most challenging reading "because sometimes are bored."
In class, and especially in private conversations during advisory meetings and in general, Eloisa impressed me as an incredibly motivated student who embarked on an academic quest, knowing that her learning was in her own hands. From the first day of History 5B, Eloisa's class presence became vocal. Despite her apparent struggles with English grammar, Eloisa never shied away from expressing her thoughts. Her ideas were well-founded and knowledgeable, and when she stumbled across an unknown word, she immediate sought the help of other bilingual students, who were always ready to translate and explain, or the help of her teachers.
It was Eloisa's incredible academic stamina that made me ask for her assistance in this case study. I am not a native English speaker myself. I have been trying to master the intricacies of the English language for most of my adult life. I know first-hand what it takes to speak with an accent in a group of American teenagers, and I can commiserate with many injustices Eloisa is currently going through, starting with "If you have an accent, you have nothing to say," and finishing with "America is for Americans." But most importantly, I hope some of the data I collected and some of the conclusions I made may help conscientious teachers as they try to equip such gifted students as Eloisa with the literacy skills they need to succeed in life. Echevarria et al. make a strong case for students like Eloisa in their Making Content Comprehensible for Secondary English Learners: The SIOP Model when they write:
"At one end of the spectrum among immigrant students, we find some secondary school ELs who had strong academic backgrounds before they came to the United States and entered our schools…Of all EL subgroups, these students have the greatest likelihood of achieving educations success if they receive appropriate English language and content instruction in their schools." (Echevarria 7)
I want to help Eloisa succeed, and I hope this research may assist me in this goal.
Eloisa took part in the whole-class literacy profile, which we compiled during the first week of Brown Summer High School. For the profile, we selected an article about Little Rock (Appendix 1) from a 1957 edition of a weekly newspaper, entitled Southern School News. We deliberately chose a primary source to expose students to the particularities of our discipline's language. Although the chosen passage placed on the 10th-grade reading difficulty level in Fry Readability Graph with an average of 152 syllables per sentence and 4 sentences per 100 words, we realize that some of its outdated language may have made answering comprehension questions (Appendix 2) somewhat challenging.
In addition to the regular assignments the rest of the class was asked to perform, I asked Eloisa to read Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss and complete a series of comprehensive questions (Appendix 3) and vocabulary tasks (Appendix 4). There are several reasons behind my choice of this children's book, which is rated at a second-grade level in accordance to Fry Readability Chart with an average of 120 syllables and 11 sentences per 100 words.
These are my reasons:
1. I wanted to see how long it would take Eloisa to read a book cover to cover. Granted Horton Hears a Who! is not the type of reading likely to be done in her future academic career, I wanted to impress upon Eloisa that six months after she switched languages and cultures, she can finish reading a book in one sitting, understand its concepts, be able to apply the apparently children's story to the question of human rights and suffering, and do it all within an hour.
2. I wanted to see if visual illustrations would facilitate Eloisa's understanding.
3. I wanted to see if a compact and rhymed text would be an efficient vehicle for big ideas, especially for ELL students.
4. I wanted to see if Eloisa will be able to read between the lines, see the deeper philosophical meaning of the text, and apply her prior knowledge to decipher hidden ideas.
5. I believe literacy to be an ability, which allows people to exercise their intellectual creativity, flexibility, and curiosity, which consequently makes it more complex than mere decoding of printed text. I wanted to see if Eloisa, who has understandable non-native-speaker difficulties with literacy skills in their traditional definition, is literate by my definition of the term.
Data and Analysis
Together with her peers, Eloisa completed the whole-class literacy profile reading and comprehension questions. The average fluency rate of History 5B was 133.3 words per minute, which placed the class as a whole on the 4th-grade fluency level, according to the NECAP Fluency Chart for Reading. Although Eloisa's fluency rate was higher than the average, she still read significantly below the appropriate grade level. Eloisa read at a speed of 185 words per minute, which places her on the 5th-grade level of the NECAP Fluency Chart.
Eloisa answered five out of five comprehension questions after the reading, and the content quality of her responses was excellent. However, it was evident that the technicalities of the English language were an impediment to the clarity of Eloisa's written expression. In response to Question 5 (Appendix 2), she wrote: "I would try to showing to the parents of the school that we all have rights and one of those ones is to get education." Although this answer demonstrates mastery of a higher thought process which places Eloisa's thinking on top of Bloom's Taxonomy list, its grammatical structure is clearly imperfect.
To work on her individual literacy profile, I invited Eloisa out for lunch after class in the third week of Brown Summer High School. After we finished our subway sandwiches, I asked Eloisa to begin reading Horton Hears a Who! She began with reading out loud to much pleasure (or so I think) of the entire restaurant. In the course of five minutes, Eloisa read 277 words, mispronouncing 12 of them (4.3% of the total). Her out-loud reading rate was 55 words per minute, which places Eloisa's oral reading skills on the first-grade level, according to the NECAP Fluency Chart for Reading.
As Eloisa read, I marked both some mispronunciations and the reading skills Eloisa had mastered. She demonstrated a great intonation and rhythm, her reading speed throughout the passage was consistent and appropriate, she re-read the words which presented difficulty, and her articulation was clear throughout the excerpt. These are some mispronunciations I marked: "creature," "speck," "tiny," "jungle," and "murmured."
After five minutes, I asked Eloisa to finish the book silently. It took her 20 minutes to complete the text and seven minutes to answer comprehensive (Appendix 3) and vocabulary (Appendix 4) questions.
Reading as a Confidence Builder
After Eloisa finished writing, I congratulated her on finishing an entire book in English in one sitting. She looked very pleased when I said that, and after I told her that she should not think of Horton Hears a Who! only as a children's book, she told me that she did not think it was because its "big message." To illustrate this point, she wrote an explanation why she believed the book was about human rights (Question 7, Appendix 3): "Yes, because is talking about small people that were almost die because they were small but everybody have the right to live." Thus, the first goal I set while contemplating an appropriate text for this research seemed accomplished: Eloisa appeared confident for finishing a book in English, and she established its connection with the subject we were studying in class – human rights.
Images as a Facilitator of Meaning
When asked if pictured helped her understand (Question 8, Appendix 3), Eloisa wrote that they helped her "a little bit!!" As I watched her reading, I noticed that Eloisa looked at pictures frequently, although she did not spent much time analyzing them.
What I found especially curious regarding Eloisa's relationship with illustrations was the role images played in assisting Eloisa with the words she did not know. When I asked Eloisa to write down the five words she did not know (Appendix 4), she recorded: "bottomed," "'twas," "shaking," "speck," and "silly." Only one of these words can be illustrated – a speck, and although Dr. Seuss paints a picture of a speck of dust, Eloisa understood what it was only after I gave her an oral explanation of "a very small piece."
At the same time, Eloisa said that the one word without which the story would not be the same was "clover." She explained her reasoning when she wrote (Appendix 4): "because is a flower and is so interesting that can have a town on there." Yet, when Eloisa began reading the book, she did not understand what a clover was, but after looking at Dr. Seuss' pictures, she realized that it was a flower, she deduced that it was small, and she became fascinated by the idea that little people could have a society on such a small flower. Thus, the second goal I set when I chose Horton Hears a Who! was also successfully accomplished: I believe Dr. Seuss' vivid images helped Eloisa make connections with the text and derive its deeper meaning.
Compact Rhyme as a Vehicle for Great Ideas
Although Eloisa was never reluctant to read out loud in class and she always volunteered to do so, it was not always an easy task. The clarity, speed, and rhythm of her class reading were frequently hindered by the words she did not know. When Eloisa read the beginning of Dr. Seuss' book, her presentation was very strong, although, as it turned out, not all the words she read were familiar to her. I believe the poetic rhythm greatly helped Eloisa to articulate the text. It set her speaking in motion; she realized that there were auditory patterns in the text, and when some passages became difficult to articulate, she knew that they had to rhyme or fit into a rhyme; so she successfully overcame that obstacle. In her personal/reading survey, Eloisa finished the prompt, "When I am reading something and I get stuck, I try the following strategies…" with "I skip the difficult part or word." Reading a rhymed text did not allow Eloisa to skip any passages without interfering with the poem's flow, and although I do not know if Eloisa skipped any part when she read Horton Hears a Who! silently, I was a witness to the effortless flow of her annunciation when she read out loud for five minutes.
It was, of course, not enough to simply persevere through the text; I was hoping Eloisa would understand its many hidden messages and make connections between what we had studied earlier in class and what she read in the children's book. To the best of my knowledge, she was able to do so, and the following part of my research will address this aspect.
Deciphering Hidden Meaning in a Children's Story
When I asked Eloisa to explain what Horton means by the key phrase of the book, "A person is a person, no matter how small" (Question 6, Appendix 3), she wrote: "He mean that not matter yor size, your color or whatever you are a person, you are important." In response to my question if the book was about human rights (Question 7, Appendix 3), she wrote: "Yes, because is talking about small people that were almost die because they were small but everybody have the right to live!" It was clear from these responses that Eloisa understood the message Dr. Seuss was trying to convey and the reason why I chose the book for our reading.
Wiggins and McTighe, quoting John Dewey, write in their Understanding by Design: “To be truly able requires the ability to transfer what we have learned to new and sometimes confusing settings…We are expected to take what we learned in one lesson and be able to apply it to other, related but different situations.” (Wiggins 40) They later add: “Transfer is our great and difficult mission because we need to put students in a position to learn far more, on their own, that they can ever learn from us” (Wiggins 44). I whole-heartedly believe in the mission of empowering students to reach the stage of knowledge transfer, and I think that in the short duration of our lunch meeting, Eloisa began to transfer the prior knowledge of history of human rights into a new realm (before our meeting, she had never read Horton Hears a Who!) as she started making connections between the two.
Before our meeting, Eloisa and I shared almost three weeks of class time together, and she had sufficient knowledge about human rights to apply Dr. Seuss' ideas to it. Had she not been exposed to the historical and theoretical aspects of human rights before reading Dr. Seuss and had I simply told her that the children's book dealt with human rights issues, she might have become interested in exploring the subject on her own. Thus, the text that touched upon big ideas but did not provide any depth of explanation might have picked Eloisa's curiosity to encourage her to look for hidden secrets behind its apparently straight-forward message. This, of course, is just my hopeful hypothesis. The more concrete data I gained from my research makes me believe that Eloisa could successfully decipher the philosophical meaning of a rhymed children's story and apply it to more academic and historical settings.
Achieving Literacy Skills in Their Broader Sense
Wiggins and McTighe write: “To grasp the meaning of a thing, an event, or a situation is to see it in its relations to other things: to see how it operates or functions, what consequences follow from it, what causes it, what uses it can be put to…The relation of means-consequence is the center and heart of all understanding” (Wiggins 38). I believe Eloisa not only managed to decipher a deeper meaning of Horton Hears a Who!, she also managed to locate the means-consequence relationship of human rights in such an unlikely place as a children's story.
Eloisa's accurate responses to various levels of comprehension questions demonstrated her solid grasp on the subject; moreover, the conclusions she made in our conversation met two of the three objectives we set for the course: "Do we all have the same rights?" and "What rights and responsibilities come with power?" Echevarria et al. explain their reasons behind creating the SIOP model: "Through sheltered instruction…ELs would participate in a content course with grade-level objectives delivered through modified instruction that made the information comprehensible to the students" (Echevarria 15). I think reading Horton Hears a Who! can be referred to as an example of such sheltered instruction. In the course of my research, I had a privilege of witnessing Eloisa's strong literacy skills, which can occasionally appear opaque behind her technical struggles with expression in English.
Recommendations for Future Literacy Instruction
I believe students like Eloisa, who have a solid knowledge base in many disciplines in their native language, may benefit from the following pedagogical approaches:
1. The strategy of the most important word (Appendix 4). Kylene Beers writes in her When Kids Can't Read: What Teachers Can Do: "This strategy, first proposed by David Bleich (1975), forces students back into the text to consider what was the most important aspect of that text" (Beers 173-174). I would like to add that this technique assisted Eloisa in knowledge transfer. It encouraged Eloisa to activate her prior knowledge as she attempted to make connections between the word of her choice, the subject of the book, and the theme of our history unit.
2. Bloom's Taxonomy to create comprehensive questions (Appendix 3. Wiggins and McTighe emphasize the importance of Bloom's Taxonomy with the following passage:
"The challenge is not to 'plug in' what was learned, from memory, but modify, adjust, and adapt an (inherently general) idea to the particulars of a situation…Knowledge and skill, then, are necessary elements of understanding, but not sufficient in themselves. Understanding requires more: the ability to thoughtfully and actively 'do' the work with discernment, as well as the ability to self-assess, justify, and critique such 'doings.'" (Wiggins 41)
When I initially asked Eloisa to read a fairy-tale, she was taken aback: the elephant on the cover did not promise a serious intellectual workout. However, when she engaged with the text, she began noticing parallels between its rhymed message and the concepts we had studied earlier. As she was reading, Eloisa's cognitive skills were climbing Bloom's Taxonomy ladder, which began at such an unexpected place as the jungle of Nool and ended with personal responsibility in case of violation of human rights.
3. Adaptation of content to all levels of student proficiency. Echevarria et al. emphasize the importance of this strategy while warning against dangers of over-simplifying: "In many schools, teachers are required to teach from textbooks that are too difficult for English learners to read. We have previously mentioned the problem of 'watering down' text to the point where all students can read it; content concepts are frequently lost when the text is adapted this way" (Echevarria 37). Although Dr. Seuss' text may be considered "watered down," since its readability rate places it on the second-grade level, I do not believe its less challenging language structure affected its grade-appropriate content. On the contrary, I think that using texts of various levels of difficulty, varying from authentic primary sources to text-books to less expected history references, is of great help to students like Eloisa, who struggle with English skills and work on building a solid language foundation in their learning.
Although my research focused primarily on Eloisa's reading, speaking, and comprehension, I believe it may be helpful for teachers who try to differentiate their methodology while working with English-language learners. I think the textual approach I chose for Eloisa was successful, and I hope to implement it in other contexts in my future practice.
Beers, K., (2003). When Kids Can't Read: What Teachers Can Do. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Dr. Seuss, (2006). Horton Hears a Who! London: Harper Collins Children's Books
Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., and Short, D., (2010). Making Content Comprehensible for Secondary English Learners: The SIOP Model. Boston, New York, San Francisco: Allyn and Bacon.
Heller, R., and Greenleaf, C., (2007). Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education
Lemov, D., (2010). Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Wiggins, G., and McTighe, J., (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Whole-Class Reading Assignment
Read the following newspaper article. Read for understanding. In other words make sure you understand the article! When we call “1,” write a “1” where you are. Do this until we stop calling numbers.
U.S. Troops Sent to Little Rock; Three Districts Desegregate
(Nashville, TN 1957)
The Little Rock school integration plan, after nearly 2.5 years of apparently smooth sailing, hit serious trouble in the last week before it was to take effect. Five days before the start of school Gov. Faubus testified that in his opinion integration would produce violence and a chancery judge ordered the school board not to proceed; next day the federal court which had approved the plan 18 months ago overrode the state injunction and also enjoined all persons from interfering.
On Monday night before the start of classes Tuesday morning (Sept. 3) Arkansas National Guard troops appeared at Little Rock Central High School and surrounded it.
An hour later Faubus on television and radio said the guardsmen were there to maintain or restore peace and good order; he said they were not to act as segregationists or as integrationists.
But he said maintaining peace and good order would not be possible “if forcible integration” were carried out and that therefore the schools “must be operated on the same basis as they have been operated in the past.”
When classes met again Monday (Sept. 23) more than 100 city and state police were present. The crowd numbered up to 1,000. The nine Negro students went in a side door while the crowd was chasing four Negro newsmen. By noon the crowd was judged to be so noisy and threatening that city and school authorities agreed to take the Negro students out, and did. That afternoon President Eisenhower issued a proclamation ordering the people to disperse and cease interfering with the court order but about 250 persons gathered at the school the next morning. President Eisenhower then ordered the Arkansas national Guard into federal service and part of the 101st Airborne Division (which is racially integrated) to surround the school and see that the court order was carried out. On Wednesday morning (Sept. 25) the nine Negro boys and girls went back to school. There was no trouble.
Whole-Class Comprehension Questions
Please answer these questions:
1. Who was the president of the U.S. during the time when the article was written?
2. Why did a crowd gather at Little Rock Central High School on Tuesday, September 3, 1957?
3. Based on this article, what is integration?
4. Why might White parents and students be mad about Black students going to White schools?
5. Imagine you were in charge of integrating Central High School. How would you do it?
Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss
Individual Comprehension Questions
1. Who was Horton?
2. Why did Horton talk to a "small speck of dust"?
3. What did the Kangaroo think of Horton at the beginning of the book?
4. Why did the eagle drop the clover?
5. Why was it difficult for Horton to find his clover?
6. What does Horton mean when he says: "A person is a person, no matter how small"?
7. Is this book about human rights? Explain.
8. Did the pictures help you understand?
Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss
Individual Vocabulary Questions
Please write down 5 words you don't know:
Please write down 5 most important words:
Please write down 1 word, without which this story would not be the same. Explain why you chose it.